Kevin Smith's "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" isn't quite as raunchy as the title makes it sound, probably because, as crude as his humor sometimes is, Smith isn't particularly interested in sex at the expense of romance. Not to say he isn't interested in sex at all: One of the things "Zack and Miri" tries to get at is the way sex can either screw up a good friendship or transform friendship into love -- and the parties involved can't know the outcome until they've made the leap.
So the big question in "Zack and Miri" is whether or not Zack (played by Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), two flat-broke roommates and longtime friends who hope to get semi-rich, or at least pay off their debts, by making an amateur porno film, will ever acknowledge their long-submerged attraction to each other. And the movie's finest moment is the one in which the two come face-to-face -- so to speak -- with the emotional risk that that acknowledgment entails.
The problem is that everything else around that moment is more workmanlike -- in that freewheeling, rather messy Kevin Smith way -- than it is funny. "Zack and Miri" (which Smith also wrote) is essentially a movie about process, and so our enterprising entrepreneurs have to do everything from securing a location (they end up shooting, after-hours, in the Starbucks-like coffee shop on the outskirts of Pittsburgh where Zack works) to casting the actors (who include rank amateurs off the street, like Lester, played by Jason Mewes, who can get hard almost magically, just by concentrating for a few seconds). The ragtag cast and crew also includes Stacey (played by real-life porn star Katie Morgan), a squeaky-voiced sweetie-pie whose Chihuahua accompanies her wherever she goes, and Bubbles (Traci Lords), an experienced performer with a few novel tricks up her, ahem, sleeve.
"Zack and Miri" acknowledges that making a porno movie can't possibly be as exciting as watching one, but maybe that's also why it feels padded with jokes -- many of them predictably crude -- that just aren't that funny. When Smith submitted the final movie to the MPAA ratings board, he ran into trouble, but not so much over the movie's sexual content. There's nudity in "Zack and Miri," including some naked breasts and a few dangling testicles, but what the ratings board really had trouble with was a moment that Smith, in interviews, has called "the shit shot." To explain it would give too much away, but I will say that in the final version of "Zack and Miri," the gag is swift, concise and reasonably effective. But in the end it's just a small, throwaway joke, not a great moment of shock-inducing hilarity.
And maybe that points to the chief problem with "Zack and Miri": The jokes are forced, almost mechanical, in their crudeness. They're so carefully placed that they feel a little precious rather than spontaneous, which ends up defying that impulsive, animal thing inside us, whatever it is, that gets us to respond to crude humor in the first place. That's not a problem specific to "Zack and Miri Make a Porno." More and more comedies are offering crude humor as an end in itself, instead of a means to an end. You can almost imagine the writers of these movies, in the midst of struggling to make a line work, just tossing in some graphic or scatological detail as a stopgap.
I don't think that's Smith's way of working, but as I watched "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," I found potty-mouth fatigue setting in pretty quickly. The actors, game in every way, at least try to give the appearance of being casual and spontaneous: Banks, in particular, is always fun to watch -- her eyes have that great, demented gleam. And Rogen is simply Rogen: At some point he's going to have to play something other than the schleppy, average guy who lands the gorgeous babe, but his comic timing is certainly adequate for this kind of material. He's at his best when he's trying to be serious, in the moments when Zack and Miri find themselves negotiating the terrifying frontier of possibly becoming lovers. A crude joke will always get a laugh from someone. But you're treading into really daring territory the minute you start exploring the messiness of emotions.